Many teams have a desire to be more agile in the way they operate and deliver products and projects. When teams say this, they usually mean the small “a” version of agile—that is, they want to be a nimble group that is able to move and adapt quickly to a changing environment. Executives hear that a team wants to be agile, and they will sometimes hear the large “A” version, which can make them nervous. There are many stories of large organizations who attempted an Agile transformation and wound up with disappointing results, even after spending a lot of effort and resources into making it successful. Few executives would want to go down that road for uncertain gains.
This difference in outlook can create a conflict. A large organization that mandates a shift to Agile from the top doesn’t always know what outcome it is trying to achieve, and how or why this kind of transformation might get them there. An individual group may not understand how it fits into the larger environment, and it may try to make a change without knowing the impact. Combined, this creates confusion and chaos—no one really knows what they are trying to do, or why.
But this common predicament should not prevent a team, group or other organizational unit from starting to follow the agile principles themselves. Teams that are attempting to operate in an agile way on their own—even if the larger organization does not—can succeed with a grassroots effort that follows many of the same principles without giving it an official name. The main agile tenets hold true, no matter the team construction, size, or overall organization. Mostly, they are universal, and can be adapted to any team environment.
This means that there are some things that any team that desires to be agile should be doing, and it generally can align with whatever methodology the larger organization is following. The important points will remain the same in any environment and retain their value to all stakeholders. A team that attempts this kind of grassroots campaign may not achieve a full transformation, but it will be able to operate in a more agile way without causing a large disruption.
Here are five things that teams that are looking to make a grassroots move to agile should be considering. Even if the larger organization has questions or confusion, these things will hold true.
- Ignore the Jargon
Agile methodologies can come with a bunch of new names for familiar concepts. The names help the team understand how things are different than they were before, and they are meant to focus the team around activities, such as sprints, demonstrations and retrospectives. But the names themselves are not that important. Stakeholders are not that interested in learning new jargon that describes portions of the project process, they are more interested in the results that they can bring. Rather than confusing the issue by worrying about the names of meetings or activities, focus on the outcomes. Simply calling existing things something new won’t make the team any more agile; changing the way the team operates will. Focus on that change, not what the change is called.
- Create a Vision
Creating a vision for a team, a product, or even an individual feature, is good for all stakeholders from executive to developer. Being able to describe the purpose and goal of what is being created helps focus the team around the key points that must be achieved, who the user or customer will be, and why the work is important. When an executive stakeholder asks what the team does, or what the team is working on, it should be easy to provide an understandable statement or two of why what the team is delivering matters to the organization. Similarly, when a developer is deciding how to deliver, it helps to understand the user, their goals, and what matters to them. No matter the methodology the team is working under, crafting a vision is achievable, even for the smallest team or feature. It does take thought and consideration, and getting it right isn’t always easy. But having a vision to follow, even an imperfect one, will go a long way towards making a team more agile.
- Establish and Expose Metrics
One of the more important parts of being agile is to deliver value as often as possible. Value can take many forms, for instance, it can be revenue for the company, satisfaction for the customers, or a more efficient way of doing business. Agile as a concept doesn’t dictate what value means in an organization, only that it needs to be created. A team that wants to be agile, therefore, needs to determine what they are going to deliver, and how to evaluate if they have created positive results. More importantly, the team needs to put those metrics into their success criteria, and track and report on them consistently. The metric could be sales growth, number of calls into the call center, or performance of a particular web page; the specifics don’t matter. By having something measurable as part of success, and then tying that metric to value to the organization, a team can both earn the trust of stakeholders, and focus on what they are trying to accomplish. While the finer details of what the team is striving for might be complicated, having an easy to understand metric that is reported on every week, month or quarter, will make it very clear to stakeholders just how the team is attempting to add value to the organization.
- Provide Transparency
Along with exposing metrics comes a need for transparency in all facets of the program. This also happens to be a major piece of being agile. As part of a project, hundreds of decisions are made, some of them small, some of them gigantic. None of them should be made in secret, or without considering impact on the rest of the project or organization. Traditionally, a project may provide visibility into decisions that have already been made. In an agile organization, not only to teams expose their decisions, but also the process they went through to reach it, other options considered and discarded, and the principles used to determine how to go forward. The outcomes and metrics should be obvious, as well as the path to reach the goal. Some of the steps to reach the goal will have turned out to be incorrect, and these should made visible, as well. An agile team isn’t afraid to expose everything to stakeholders, especially the missteps and failures. Being transparent and open is the best way to show what the team is trying to accomplish, and how they are trying to get there. Even a team that fails to meet the original goal can still be successful if the learnings gained along the way are available to the rest of the organization for next time.
- Align with the larger organization
A grassroots campaign has an underlying goal of being inclusive to people who want to participate. This holds true even for a grassroots campaign to bring Agile methodologies into an organization. Removing barriers to participate, support or get engaged are vital to the success of the effort and sometimes require the team to take on more responsibilities than expected. Beyond not worrying about the vocabulary of new meetings, the team needs to continue to align with the larger organization’s needs, so as to not derail the needs of the agile team. For instance, if a safety review is a required task before work can proceed past a certain point, then by all means, the team should do the safety review. Same is true for other constructs that seem non-agile, such as budgeting, legal reviews, or long-range forecasting. An agile team might think that those needs no longer apply to them, and they can be safely skipped. Quite the opposite is true. Alignment with the key milestones of the greater organization is important to show how a new process will not cause a major disruption in the existing ones. A team looking to spread agile from the bottom up should also be looking for where they can align with the top down environment they operate in. The less obstacles the team can create, the better the cooperation they can expect to receive.
It’s not unusual for a team to want to be agile and be prepared to react quickly to changes. It is also not unreasonable for a large organization to resist a full-scale move to Agile. This conflict doesn’t need to halt a small-scale, grassroots change. A team that is able to focus on the change, and not worry about what it is called, will find that results will improve through actions, not vocabulary. Having a vision is important, as is having metrics and KPIs around that vision, and exposing them to all levels of stakeholder will help to earn trust in the process and the team. Finally, being inclusive of everyone by aligning the new process with the needs of the old, as much as feasible, will help to make allies of people who might be uncomfortable with the changes. A grassroots transformation is possible, no matter the organization, but even if full change isn’t possible, acting as if it is possible could make enough of a difference.